Almost four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains the best known and most highly regarded playwright of England, if not the world, but as this world changes how relevant do his many works remain, and what can be done to keep them vital for modern audiences unaccustomed to theatre and uncomfortable with the riddles and allusions of his dialogue?
Well known for juggling ensemble casts and his character comedy based around light banter, it was no surprise that Joss Whedon’s modernisation of Much Ado About Nothing should be so effortlessly successful, and in recent years Ralph Fiennes has updated Coriolanus to contemporary warfare for his directorial debut while the National Theatre Live programme has broadcast more traditional staged versions across the land drawing audiences with their top billed casts including Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus and Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet.
It is strange then that it has fallen to an Australian director, Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel, with the backing of a French company, StudioCanal, to create such a bold, unflinching and largely faithful vision of that piece which more superstitious performers often refer to as “the Scottish play,” in name inspired by actual historical figures but whose events drawn from wider sources; when has any writer let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Opening with blood red titles on a black screen, the bleakness of the life under the unforgiving hills, silent and inhospitable to the point of uninhabitable, is contrasted by the roar of battle, deafening, unbearable and inescapable, as Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, puts down the insurrection of the rebel Macdonwald who has brought civil war to Scotland in his failed attempt to unseat King Duncan.
But as the smoke clears on the battlefield, Macbeth and his close friend Banquo spy unmoving figures silhouetted against the sky, women who recognise Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, then proclaim him also to be first Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. He is unmoved until word arrives that the current Thane of Cawdor has been executed as a traitor, and that title has indeed been bestowed upon him.
Steeped in tragedy as penetrating as icy dampness from the outset, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sweeping scenery, as much a character in the film as any of the actors, that cold and unforgiving patch of land over which bloody war is waged where only the mad could covet it, yet it is the madness of men that war feeds on.
Cotillard wisely avoids the shrillness which so often undermines the character, instead offering an understanding wife who knows her husband to be a good man which requires her to take on the mantle of darkness if he is to betray his oath of loyalty, while Fassbender is a ruthless and unforgiving warrior who takes time to offer comfort to dying men on the battlefield, tortured by his sins but unable to turn from his path as he succumbs to a very public madness.
With both leads affecting flawless Scottish accents as thick as the weather, the performances throughout are raw and honest, avoiding the contrivance of the Shakespearean soliloquy by having them almost as confessionals, Macbeth to the body of a dead soldier, Lady Macbeth to the spirits who may inhabit the chapel. With the exception of one line transferred from wife to husband which makes for a fascinating shift in their dynamic the dialogue is Shakespeare’s own, though in keeping with the realism it is stripped of the formal delivery which often acts as a barrier to modern audiences.
While minor trims have been made to the text little has been done to accelerate the pace, and though running just under two hours it actually feels longer, an extended funeral dirge for a man whose tragic but inevitable downfall has been brought to his door wholly by his own hand, dragging down those around him with his struggles.
The mountains providing a stark majesty, unmoving witnesses to the brutal power games on the barren fields below, it is almost entirely shorn of supernatural elements, told instead through blood and fire and mud and shadow. With much of the action broken free of the stage origins – the coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane is vivid and originally conceived yet entirely plausible – other scenes such as the banquet remain trapped in theatricality highlighted by the freedom of movement elsewhere.
A story so familiar requires both an exquisite production and to defy expectation if it is to survive, and though it will garner attention during the 2016 awards season apprehension over the material makes it seem unlikely that it can cross over to the multiplex appeal necessary for a wider success, but beyond this it draws attention to what can be achieved on film in Scotland should suitable capital be made available, and without denigrating the achievement it is a shame that it should have taken foreign investment to demonstrate this so powerfully.
Macbeth is on general release from Friday 2nd October